What is Philosophy of Religion?

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Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we have been asking philosophers of religion to say what our field is and does. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind. We prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Kevin Schilbrack on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Kevin Schilbrack

Kevin Schilbrack is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at West Carolina University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The questions one typically finds in textbooks on philosophy of religion are whether faith in God can be rational, whether the attributes traditionally ascribed to God are reasonable, whether the evil in the world undermines the credibility of belief in an all-powerful and perfectly loving God, and whether religious experiences are evidence for the reality of God. Sometimes one also finds alternative conceptions of God, like open theism or process theism, and increasingly one finds the question of how theists should think about the possibility of truth and salvation in other religious traditions. I find this range of questions fascinating, but needlessly limited to the topic of God. I judge that as the world shrinks due to technology and migration, a broader set of questions emerges for philosophers thinking about religion. I therefore want to lay out a proposal for the emerging sets of questions that philosophy of religion ought to take as its task. There are, I think, three such sets.

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Stamatios Gerogiorgakis on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Stamatios Gerogiorgakis

Stamatios Gerogiorgakis is “Privatdozent” at the University of Erfurt in Germany. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Let me draw a parallel with aviation: future philosophers of religion take off, like all philosophers, by studying a wide variety of subjects from metaphysics to political philosophy, from epistemology to aesthetics, from ethics to philosophy of science.

It is not in terms of taking off where philosophers of religion differ from their other colleagues in the discipline. It is rather in terms of landing. After studying metaphysics and ethics and epistemology etc. those who intend to land a career in philosophy of religion have to realize that the landing spot is too small. The horror disappears once they look to their right and to their left: the landing corridor is only a few yards “long”, but it is also several miles “broad”. In other words, philosophy of religion is no compact area in philosophy but rather a narrow path which goes through all areas of philosophy: from metaphysics to ethics and political philosophy and from epistemology and philosophy of science to aesthetics.

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Mariana Alessandri on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Mariana Alessandri

Mariana Alessandri is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas Pan American. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

A letter to my 12-year old niece, Hannah, who still knows that stories can be true—

Elie Wiesel wrote: “God made man because he loves stories.” What I love about this quote is that “he” is ambiguous. Does God love stories or do humans love stories? Both, I think. We come up with outrageous and magical stories, and the best ones I know are philosophical and religious. These stories help me breathe better, like when I come off of the Verrazano bridge and smell the ocean where I grew up. They make me want to live in this world, even when it’s ugly. In fact, the stories that move me wrestle with the ugly: why normal people can be so mean to each other, why people die or leave. They also try to explain the fun stuff—like how and why the world was created and whether there is life after death—and the tricky stuff like God, love, memory, time, and sadness. Great stories don’t always have satisfying answers, but they push us to be brave and keep asking questions.

Just because I call them stories doesn’t mean that I think they are false. Continue reading

Matheson Russell on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Matheson Russell

Matheson Russell is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophers of religion exhibit their understanding of what it is to do philosophy of religion in what they choose to write about and in the way they write about it. When we survey the philosophy of religion literature, then, what tasks do we find philosophers of religion taking up? What topics and questions do we find them tackling? I think it’s possible to discern four main streams in the contemporary literature. As I shall try to indicate, these four are dialectically interrelated.

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Laura Biron on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Laura Biron

Laura Biron is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One reason that ‘philosophy of religion’ may turn out to be such an elusive field is that it defies easy classification into any of philosophy’s main sub-disciplines. Understanding some of the classical theistic arguments—based on a priori ontological definitions of ‘God’, cosmological principles or experiential evidence of the teleological purposiveness of the world—makes philosophy of religion quite understandably a species of metaphysics. Indeed, much great work in contemporary philosophy of religion has been carried out within metaphysics and by metaphysicians, and it is often through metaphysics that students first encounter philosophy of religion as a subject.

However, as soon as one probes further into these arguments, questions arise that are best answered by drawing on other sub-disciplines of philosophy. Continue reading

Nigel Zimmermann on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Nigel Zimmermann

Nigel Zimmermann is Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and the author of Levinas and Theology (T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2013). We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of Religion is an enticingly nebulous branch of philosophy that invites thought into a shared space with belief. Such a space is of course richly pluralistic, offering complex layers of religious commitment and practice to the imprecise scrutiny of the modern and the postmodern philosopher alike.

However, what seems interesting to me is not the diversity on display which is to be expected, but that for all the fruits of philosophy of religion, it is not the space that changes – indeed agents of religion happily live out their faith without any need to enquire what philosophers might be saying about them – but rather it is the nature of thought that changes because it comes into contact with religion. Continue reading

Bernie Cantens on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Bernie Cantens

Bernie Cantens is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Moravian University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature, existence and reality of the supernatural world; its relation to the natural world; and the issues that arise from this relationship. Philosophy of religion’s method, unlike revealed theology, is solely reliant on empirical and rational approaches, as are modeled in other areas of philosophical studies. I can envision at least two ways to approach the task of clarifying what is philosophy of religion: first, we can describe it through its logical structure; second, we can describe it more organically, meaning the natural way philosophers come to address the subject matter. Let me begin with the logical structure.

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Diane Proudfoot on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Diane Proudfoot

Diane Proudfoot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Defining philosophy of religion is an impossible task. Philosophy of religion is, to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view of language, like ‘an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs’. The ancient quarters include Theravada Buddhism’s account of karma and Tertullian’s elevation of revelation over reason; and the medieval districts include Al-Ghazali on the happiness of faith and Moses Maimonides on the coercion of unbelievers. The new boroughs include Wittgenstein’s own comparison of the believer to ‘a tightrope walker’. Some older streets have fallen out of fashion in favour of new neighbourhoods such as feminist and comparative philosophy of religion. Current inhabitants of the city employ a variety of modern tools, for example hermeneutics and symbolic logic. They appeal to diverse source materials, for example ethnographic studies or linguistic analyses of scripture. They also have diverse aims, for example answering the ‘big’ questions (e.g. ‘Did God create life?’) or mapping similarities between religions in order to promote inter-faith dialogue. The locals include ‘folk’ philosophers (anyone talking about the ‘supernatural’ over coffee or the water-cooler), religious professionals (e.g. clerics practising authorized theology), and academic scholars. Some endorse a particular religion or religious world-view, while others reject the very idea of the supernatural. Definition is not possible: there are no (necessary and sufficient) conditions that define the activity—past, present, and future—of this dynamic city.

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Jacqueline Mariña on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Jacqueline Mariña

Jacqueline Mariña is Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is a critical inquiry into the most fundamental questions of the meaning of human existence. Because positive historical religions have also engaged these questions, it is at least part of the task of philosophy of religion to critically assess those answers. This means that philosophy of religion must be sharply distinguished from both apologetics and theology. Yet more foundational to philosophy of religion, and critical to the possibility of all critical inquiry within this domain, is the development of categories grounding the manner in which the inquiry is to proceed. The clue to the development of these concepts must lie with our initial definition of the task before us: critical investigation into the meaning of human existence. In what follows I provide a sketch of what I consider the most important methodological and conceptual parameters guiding this investigation.

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